Israeli Soldiers in Stiff Fight for Village
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
There was more heavy ground fighting in Southern Lebanon today and an Israeli commander said the campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas could last for several more weeks. The Israeli military said eight more of its soldiers were killed today in the ongoing battle for the village of Bint Jbeil.
NPR's Eric Westervelt has been monitoring the fighting from Israel's northern border. And Eric, what details can you give us about the fighting in Bint Jbeil today?
ERIC WESTERVELT: Well Robert the Israeli military says it controls the high ground around Bint Jbeil and what we know is that infantry forces moving by foot advanced toward the town in the pre-dawn hours and quickly encountered heavy fire from well establish, dug in Hezbollah positions.
Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and some 22 wounded in fierce battles that lasted up to six hours before Israeli forces could evacuate all of the casualties. It was the bloodiest day of ground fighting for the Israeli army so far, and many of the ground casualties, Robert, have come from fierce fighting for control of Bint Jbeil and nearby Maroun al-Ras. And in many cases the casualties have come when comrades have moved in to try to evacuate wounded soldiers and it appears that happened again today.
The Israeli army says it killed 20 Hezbollah fighters. Not able to independently confirm that. Afterwards, the head of Israel's northern command, General Udi Adam, said it was a very tough day, but our soldiers got through it. It's war and in war you have days like this.
SIEGEL: Why is Bint Jbeil of such strategic importance to the Israelis?
WESTERVELT: Well Israeli military officials think this town just a few miles from the Israeli border is a Hezbollah stronghold in the south and it was a center of resistance to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in the 1980s and '90s. But it's not clear, Robert, whether Bint Jbeil is considered to be a command and control center for Hezbollah's guerrilla fighters or simply a support base.
SIEGEL: We're hearing, I assume, artillery fire as you're talking to us. These are the Israelis firing from near you up into southern Lebanon?
WESTERVELT: That's correct, the artillery fire more than two weeks into this war is incessant and there are many artillery batteries nearby where I am and that's mild fire compared to what sometimes gets, which is fairly constant.
SIEGEL: Now Israel has artillery. It's using tanks. Obviously, the Israeli air force has been striking at Hezbollah positions. But that very powerful arsenal seems to be of only limited effectiveness now in actually dealing with Hezbollah fighters inside these villages.
WESTERVELT: Absolutely. Israel has pounded Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon, Robert, from the air and from artillery. But by all accounts they're dug in and well protected. One Israeli officer we spoke to called the terrain an infantryman's nightmare. He said it's rocky, mountainous. Israeli soldiers don't know these towns and villages. There are little alleyways and back streets. He called it the worst terrain for a conventional army to fight in and the best terrain for a guerrilla army.
They can hide out, they know the territory well. There are by all accounts a network of tunnels and hardened bunkers. They're better armed than some Israeli soldiers expected. As one officer said, the only thing we can do against these entrenched guerrilla fighters is to go in on the ground and ferret them out fighting in close quarters and it appears that's what happened today and it was certainly costly for the Israeli military.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Eric. That's NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from northern Israel, just near the border with Lebanon. Thanks. Take care.